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Friday, November 23, 2007

BEOWULF (2007) - Robert Zemeckis

Cinema certainly has come a long way since the Lumiere Brothers first terrified Victorian audiences with images of a train arriving at a station. But the evolution of the art form has sped up in the last three decades, due in part to the use of computers. Director Robert Zemeckis has done plenty to promote the use of special effects. And with Beowulf, Zemeckis pushes the boundaries once more, using motion capture to create a film entirely out of CGI. It’s not the first time this process has been used, but Zemeckis raises the bar with his reimagining of the Old English heroic poem.

Beowulf opens with a celebration of the opening of King Hrothgar’s new meade hall, Heorot. The noise from the celebrations attracts Grendel, a monster that is the son of a water demon. Grendel attacks the hall and kills many of Hrothgar’s men, then disappears into the night. Hrothgar is at his wit’s end and needs a hero. Arriving from the sea is a host of men led by Beowulf, a brash, arrogant warrior who claims he will destroy Hrothgar’s monster and return peace to the land. Grendel once again attacks the hall, but becomes unstuck when battling Beowulf. Grendel limps back to his cave and dies in the company of his mother. Beowulf and Hrothgar celebrate Grendel’s demise, but during the night, the halls are once again attacked and many die. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that the second attack was perpetrated by Grendel’s mother and that Beowulf must also destroy her. Beowulf sets out to once again battle monsters. But his arrogance and lust for power may be his own undoing.

Obviously the main attraction of Beowulf is going to be the spectacle of seeing the film created entirely of CGI. And it is quite impressive. The landscapes are almost photo-realistic. The special effects are amazing. The production design is fantastic. And the CGI is the best in the industry. But while all this is great, I found myself asking what the point of the film is. The part of it that has me vexed, is that all the actors are all motion captured and then the models are made to look exactly like their human counterparts.

It is a showy piece of cinema. A kind of ‘look what we can do!’ exclamation. But again, why? I don’t really get what the point in motion capturing an actor and making him or her look exactly like they do in real life is (with the exception of Ray Winstone, who’s made look a lot slimmer and younger in the film). Either you film the actors, or you animate in CGI. As an animator myself, I’ve never been too impressed with motion capture. While it’s almost true to life, there’s always something missing from the motion that makes it feel unreal. And that’s pretty much what I felt watching Beowulf. It’s impressive, but something ain’t right.

As for the direction, well it’s pretty good. Unfortunately there are some rather silly moments in the film that had me laughing when I shouldn’t. Beowulf battles Grendel naked. While this is a good idea in the context of the movie, Zemeckis takes some drastic steps to ensure we don’t see Beowulf’s ‘sword’ and by doing this, the scene becomes a bit laughable. The battle with Grendel himself is a bit of an anti-climax. I’d heard bits and pieces about this poem over the years and I expected something a little more... epic, I guess. In fact, Beowulf’s battle with a dragon, the climax of the film, is far more impressive.

The acting, if you can really call it that, isn’t too bad. But the characters look soulless, so this kind of kills any nuances the actors may have brought to their roles. And that’s a little disappointing considering the cast includes Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Brendan Gleeson. The script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary translates pretty well into modern English, even if there are one or two silly moments that are a little too modern. The story itself is pretty basic. Monster kills man. Man kills monster. Other monster kills more men. Man must kill other monster. But there’s plenty of visual moments to keep you interested.

Beowulf is an interesting benchmark in terms of cinema. It’s a good place to look back at how far the art form has come. And a good place to glimpse into the future at where it’s going. And if you get to see the film in 3-D, as I did, it’s a fairly amusing film to fill two hours. But as a film, it’s nothing really spectacular. More of a portfolio piece for a special effects company than a brilliant cinematic film.



Marin Mandir said...

Very good review. I didn't know the whole film was entriely CGI before you mentioned it.

J Luis Rivera said...

I'll have to agree with you in everything, although I may have liked it more than you did :)